LeManuel “Lee” Bitsóí, associate vice president of Diversity Affairs at Fort Lewis College, whose work helped the college acknowledge its sordid past and commit to a more inclusive future, will be leaving to take on a new role at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
“It was a great experience working at Fort Lewis, and what I’ve really appreciated is the willingness and openness from faculty, staff and students who have been really open to talking about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Bitsóí said.
With over two years at the college, Bitsóí was able to help secure a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to aid FLC in the coming years to hire Native American and Indigenous Studies faculty, and to develop curriculum centered around reconciliation and the college’s boarding school history.
Additionally, he was able to assist in a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open rural connectivity centers for FLC students in rural and tribal communities during the distance-learning period of the pandemic.
Notably, Bitsóí was instrumental in working with students and faculty members to remove panels on the FLC clock tower that inaccurately depicted the college’s Native American boarding school past.
“The removal of the panels from the clock tower, which inaccurately portrayed the boarding school history, and the ceremony associated with that was probably one of the most important moments in Fort Lewis College history,” FLC President Tom Stritikus said. “It was engaging and welcoming, and that was really Lee’s leadership demonstrated at its finest.”
Bitsóí also worked with faculty and students to create a diversity, equity and inclusion plan during his time at FLC. The plan will be released later this year and will serve as a road map for how the college will think about diversity and inclusion moving forward.
“One of the reasons why I was drawn to Fort Lewis College was because as a first-generation Ivy League graduate, I wanted to lend my expertise to other Native American students who aspire to attend graduate school,” he said.
Working in the Four Corners over the past couple of years was also a bit of a homecoming for Bitsóí, who grew up on the Navajo Nation just a few hours from Durango and FLC.
With the college being a big part of the larger community in Durango, he said diversity work at FLC will have effects on the region as a whole.
“People sometimes forget that diversity drives the economy of Durango and the region,” he said. “The college itself is an economic engine for the town and the region. It brings in diverse students from across the country. ... Our population at the college is very diverse, and our students live and work in the community.”
Bitsóí noted more than half of the students at FLC are people of color, and 45% are Native American or Alaska Native.
In Durango, Bitsóí said he’s a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee with the Durango Police Department.
“We’ve had some really tough and candid conversations about racial profiling of people of color, and how that’s systemic,” he said. “And we’ve talked about how that can be changed and modified.”
Doing diversity work through the pandemic, Bitsóí said he’s adopted the mantra, “We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Stritikus said as leader of the college, Bitsóí’s mantra is something he will carry with him moving forward.
“Lee has the ability to create a space where important dialogue around diversity issues can occur in a welcoming, but challenging way,” Stritikus said. “That is really important to who we are as Fort Lewis College.”
Stritikus said Bitsóí’s work at the college was impressive for the short time he was there, and has elevated the position of associate vice president of Diversity Affairs.
“Lee made this job better than what it was when he came in,” Stritikus said. “So the next person that steps in has the opportunity to see the amazing work that our faculty and staff are doing in this area and think about how they want to be a part of it.”